Monuments honoring Georgia’s controversial past got a public boost Tuesday from state Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, who said the state would be wrong to turn its back on its own history.
Benton’s comments came a day after state officials acknowledged plans to relocate a statue of Tom Watson, a one-time populist turned white supremacist who vilified blacks, Catholics and Jews. Watson’s fist-pumping likeness has sat for years at the base of the state Capitol’s west steps — although it will soon be permanently relocated to a park across the street.
“I want to make sure that in our politically correct society we don’t start moving things that tell our history,” said Benton, a 30-year history teacher and former Jackson County school board member.
“If we start judging our ancestors, how are we going to be judged?” Benton said. “What if we roll over every time someone cries racist, or says something (that) isn’t politically correct? I bet we would have to remove statues all over the South.”
Gov. Nathan Deal approved the statue’s relocation, but stressed Tuesday he made the decision based on safety: The west steps are deteriorating, and the state plans to renovate both them and the entrance to the building.
“I don’t want to magnify it beyond the real reasons,” Deal told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “The real reasons were safety for people coming and going from the Capitol, and the steps needed to be repaired. And the statue was in the way.”
Benton said he understood Deal’s reasoning for moving the statue but that he worried Georgia was ignoring the good and bad about its past.
Watson, a former state lawmaker, congressman and U.S. senator, was viewed by many as a hero when his statue was dedicated in 1932. He came to prominence in the late 1800s, championing the needs of poor farmers and sharecroppers of all races. That support waned with time. Watson, who owned a weekly newspaper, endorsed taking the vote from African-Americans and launched anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic diatribes in his editorials.
Benton earlier this year introduced legislation under House Bill 91 that would make it harder to remove historical markers, statues and monuments and would require relocation to a place of similar significance.
“You can’t pick and choose what history you’re going to remember or you’ll lose a whole bunch of your past,” Benton said. “Watson was a racist and anti-Semite, but he was also probably the most powerful politician in Georgia for 25 years.”